From Dreamgirls to Abbott Elementary: A Timeline of Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Incredible Career

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It’s no accident that Abbott Elementary became ABC’s newest hit TV show. Helmed by creator and star Quinta Brunson, a former stand-up comedian and BuzzFeed producer, the sit-com was destined to have wit and comedy on lock. But there’s something that distinguishes a good show from a great one, and that’s a veteran.

“Quinta literally looked at me and said, ‘We need a queen, Ms. Ralph, and you’re that queen,’” says Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays God-fearing, no-nonsense educator Barbara Howard on the show. Howard serves as the velvety voice of reason at the Philadelphia public school where Abbott Elementary takes place. And while many are encountering Ralph’s work for the first time through the freshman comedy series Abbott Elementary, she’s been in the industry for five decades. Here, we take a look back at Ralph’s storied career.

los angeles circa 1979 actress sheryl lee ralph poses for a portrait circa 1979 in los angeles, california photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

Sheryl Lee Ralph poses for a portrait circa 1979

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In 1975, at just 19 years old, Sheryl Lee Ralph became the youngest woman at the time to graduate from Rutgers University.

Like many Black students, Ralph entered college as a pre-medicine major. “I’m an immigrants’ child,” says Ralph. “My mother had very big dreams for me. In her words, it was, ‘Be a doctor or a lawyer, and if you can’t be either, marry one.’” Ralph mimics her mother in a thick Jamaican accent before chuckling to herself. The a-ha moment came when it was clear Ralph didn’t have the stomach for surgery but did have a knack for the arts. By graduation, Ralph was named one of the earliest winners of the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships awarded by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

new york, ny circa 1981 sheryl lee ralph, deborah burrell and loretta devine circa 1981 in new york city photo by robin platzerimagesgetty images

Sheryl Lee Ralph, Deborah Burrell, and Loretta Devine circa 1981

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In 1981, Sheryl Lee Ralph debuted the role of Deena Jones in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls and received a Tony nomination for her performance.

Just six years after graduating from Rutgers University, Ralph took center stage as the first-ever Deena Jones in Dreamgirls, which went on become a classic piece of musical theater. Did Ralph expect it to be such a success?

“Absolutely!” she says.

Ralph helped develop Dreamgirls from practically day one. “There was no cast to join,” she says. “There was a workshop with myself, Loretta Divine, and Ramona Brooks. It was just the three of us working on this show which started off as Project #9. We worked for a year putting together the foundation that went to Michael Bennett… who had just had big success with Chorus Line… We were literally creating the show.” Together, these three Black women believed in Dreamgirls so deeply even when others didn’t, and they willed its success into existence.

“I knew something wonderful had to happen with Dreamgirls,” Ralph continues. “I remember Quincy Jones was invited as an investor. He saw a run-through of our first act, and he walked out. And I was so broken-hearted, like, ‘How can he not see what a big hit we’re gonna be?’” No matter how seasoned Ralph has become in the industry, she’s in some ways still incredulous that others didn’t have the foresight to trust the project. “I still feel like, ‘Oh my God, how did they not see that and not get it?’ It’s like looking at a baby Beyoncé. How can you look at her and not know that she will be something?” (A fitting analogy considering the role of Deena Jones was later reprised by Beyoncé in the film adaptation.)

“I knew something wonderful had to happen with Dreamgirls.”

It was the success of Dreamgirls that finally won over Ralph’s hesitant mother. “At my graduation from college, my mother was so unaccepting [about me becoming an actress],” Ralph says. Just seven years later, she was attending the 1982 Tony Awards as a nominee. “I remember my father saying, ‘If your mother doesn’t want to go to the Tony Awards, you and I will be right there!’” Thankfully, Ralph’s mother was able to recognize how right her daughter was to pursue theater. “She ended up sitting behind [my dad and I], and I could hear her the whole time saying, ‘That’s my daughter right there! Deena Jones, that’s my daughter.” Again, the thick Jamaican accent causes Ralph to double over in laughter.

Though Ralph would soon be thrust onto screens big and small, the stage remained her first love. “Creating a bond with the cast… lights, microphone and your talent… There’s nothing like that and like hearing the audience respond differently depending on where you are with the performance or how they’re thinking. There’s nothing like that!”

actress brandy center, orange sweater, star of upns moesha and her castmates william allen young, yvette wilson, shar jackson, ray j, marcus t paulk, lamont bentley, and sheryl lee ralph celebrate the 100th episode of the comedy series photo by getty images

Sheryl Lee Ralph celebrates the 100th episode of the comedy series ‘Moesha.’

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Throughout the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, Sheryl Lee Ralph took on dozens of film and television roles, including the beloved Dee Mitchell in Moesha.

Over the next few decades, Ralph performed in an assortment of roles. “You learn everything in theater: makeup, hair, eeeeeeverything! My theater background gave me a big bonus, because I had so much knowledge in my head, but at the same time it’s different in each medium. For example, the way you perform on stage is not the way you perform for film or for TV. They’re very different skills. When you’re on stage, you’re acting for the person in the back row, but on film, you come off as larger than life so you have to watch your technique.”

One of her most beloved roles was as the stern yet nurturing Dee Mitchell on the popular sit-com Moesha, and it catapulted Ralph to a status she has described as “Blackfamous.” “Black people around the world from London to Africa to the West Indies were so excited and happy with Moesha, and it was a level of fame that did me well!” she says. “I was very satisfied to see things spread out with Sister Act 2 [in which Ralph played Florence Watson] and different opportunities.”

Over time, the word “diva” became a recurring theme for Ralph, who used the term when naming her foundation, book, and podcast. “From my Dreamgirls days, people would use the word diva toward me. It was a way of showing a certain amount of respect for your talent, the way you carry yourself, etc… It wasn’t about being a spoiled brat or an over-the-top performer, but a woman who is divinely, inspired, and victoriously aware, alive, awesome, audacious. And hey, if it was Sunday, she would be anointed! That kind of woman.”

los angeles may 21 actress sheryl lee ralph drinks a can of sprite during a portrait session on may 21, 1988 in los angeles, california photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

1988 portrait session

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In 2021, Sheryl Lee Ralph began co-starring in Abbott Elementary, which premiered on ABC to widespread acclaim.

When asked about the experience of working with Brunson and the entire cast and crew for Abbott Elementary, Ralph gushed over the team culture. “I love the magic and vision of Quinta Brunson,” she says. Though Ralph is an industry veteran, she considers herself a lifelong learner and says she’s learned a lot from working on the show. “My mother once asked me, ‘Why is that woman still wearing blue eyeshadow? Doesn’t she know it’s out of style?’” Ralph says. “It was the idea of staying current and at the very least discovering a new shade of blue.”

The role also brought Ralph renewed opportunities, including being cast alongside other Black actors. According to Ralph’s recollection, the last time she worked with a Black TV/film husband was in 1989 or 1990 with Denzel Washington in The Mighty Quinn and Richard Brooks in To Sleep With Anger. “It became interesting because at one point, even though I was considered ‘Blackfamous,’ they would never cast me against a Black man. After Denzel, it was a series of white actors,” like Robert De Niro, Jon Voight, and John Rothman.

Plus, Abbott Elementary gave her the chance to test out a new hairstyle. “That wig that I wear that so many people want to talk about!” she jokes.

abbott elementary schools out for summer ahead of the finale on tuesday, april 12, the abbott elementary stars and executive producers were present to celebrate the end of the freshman season of the hit workplace comedy creator, star and executive producer quinta brunson, along with fellow series regulars tyler james williams, janelle james, lisa ann walter and sheryl lee ralph, and executive producerdirector randall einhorn gathered for an advanced screening of the season one finale and reception at neuehouse in hollywood abc via getty images
sheryl lee ralph

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Sheryl Lee Ralph, the multi-hyphenate, is embracing her diverse experiences and leaning into her gifts behind the curtain.

Ralph’s prowess doesn’t end with her talent as a performer. Tapping into the skills she learned developing Dreamgirls, Ralph recently co-produced Thoughts of a Colored Man, a play about seven Black men in Brooklyn that debuted in 2021 as the first Broadway show to have an entirely Black cast and crew. Ralph speaks both fondly and with regret when reminiscing on the project. “It was amazing to be asked to become a producer! We were across from the Imperial Theatre so here I am, almost 40 years after my premiere in Dreamgirls, across the street producing Thoughts of a Colored Man,” she says. “For the first time, you’ve got a play written by a Black man, directed by a Black man, produced by a team of all Black producers. It was such a joy to be part of and then, sadly, COVID-19 hit its second peak during the premiere. At one point, we had the writer of the show on stage with a book in his hand trying to make things work!”

Though the show has come to a close, this is just the beginning for Ralph’s work behind the scenes. “I just look forward to the chance and opportunity to create other great stories,” she says. “For a long time now I’ve been working on a musical based on the life of Sylvester.” (Throughout Sylvester’s career, the influential singer and artist defied the gender binary. Ralph has been an ally of the LGBTQ+ community for years, notably advocating and fundraising for HIV/AIDS destigmatization.) “I hope that in some way, shape, or form I’m able to bring the life of Sylvester to the stage because he truly was ‘mighty real,’” referencing the current title of the musical.

And have no fear, Abbott fans. Ralph can chew gum and walk at the same time, so she isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Thankfully, we have a lot to look forward to with season 2. “I have an incredible cast, crew, and showrunner who I’m looking forward to getting back to work with!”

This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to for the complete portfolio.


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